Backyard Chickens

Ok confession time. Darcie and I are evil criminal masterminds. It’s true! You’d never know it by looking at us, but for the past 6 months we’ve been breaking the law... by keeping really cool chickens in our backyard in Saskatoon!

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Our master plan was foiled last week by the stealthy detective work of Animal Control Services, who read about us having backyard chickens in the StarPhoenix newspaper.

We’ll get to that but first, a bit of background information.

I’d always thought that chickens were pretty neat. I’m not sure exactly when Darcie and I became interested in backyard chickens, but I recall looking at magazines of people with beautiful homes and couple of chickens pecking around in the backyard.

Last year, the Better Good Store in Saskatoon (a sustainable, ethical home products shop) put on the Yard + Garden Tour through their neighbourhood. Darcie and I decided to go along and check it out. She had just recently quit her high-stress sales job in which she had travelled the province weekly and we were now looking for a way to get away from that lifestyle become more sustainable at home.

The garden tour was inspiring. All of the homes were very similar to ours – small urban lots without much room for what I would typically consider to be a garden. However these people had knocked it out of the park! There was food forests and permaculture and, yes, backyard chickens. Four of the eight houses had chickens. They stole the show. Darcie and I left the tour and decided that night that we needed to get chickens.

Darcie, in quitting her job, had also decided that she was no longer going to drive a car. She had purchased a bicycle and was going to ride that as her means of transportation (which she totally has! Even through -40° celsius winter mornings. She is hardcore). We now had a useless parking space in our backyard… we started to envision this as the future home of our yet to be purchased chickens.

Within about two weeks I had researched plans about chicken coops and sheds online (we needed a shed to store Darcie’s bikes). There was a really deadly shed (yes, sheds can be deadly if done right) and a sexy chicken coop (seriously) that I came across. There were no plans for building, but in my naivety I thought, “Hey, I’ve never built anything in my life before, but how hard could it be to simply morph these two highly involved and clearly very skilled constructions into one ultra-awesome coop/shed masterpiece?”

I enlisted the services of my friend Benjamin who actually had built stuff before: decks and fences for money and his own extensive home renos; and we set to work building the coop/shed.

First, we moved the fence and levelled the ground. This took one entire day. The ground might as well of been concrete as it had been used as a parking spot for decades. The two pickaxes we used barely seemed to make a dent.

The next day Ben and I built the foundation. Then it was nighttime. Crap, I thought we’d be done by now. Also Ben had to go back to work the next day so it was just up to me and Darcie.

I had the week off so I spent 10-12 hour days constructing, researching, undoing, and redoing, and of course, not sleeping due to fear of failure and embarrassment. By the following weekend though I was pleased that it wasn’t looking half bad.

After three weeks the coop was completely done and was looking pretty dang nice. I was also quite impressed with myself having never built anything before. Sure it wasn’t totally square, but it close enough, and I couldn’t push it over with both hands so I was happy.

Here are a few process shots for your viewing pleasure:

Before (boring parking spot):

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Framing the base:

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That’s a wall:

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Now it’s looking like something:

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Now it’s really looking like something!

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Ta-Da! Finished!

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Not too shabby I thought. I totally wanted to show it off and post it on Instagram – but I had to stop myself. We couldn’t let people know what we were doing! It had to remain a top secret black ops type of thing. So when people would ask me what I’d been up to I’d simply say “oh, just building a boring old garden shed.” Of course that didn’t quite get across to people what I was doing. It was a bit underwhelming, but oh well.

Over the fall and winter months I read about chickens. First some websites likewww.backyardchickens.com and a few other blogs. I then read a short book from organic gardening magazine on raising backyard chickens. Though the best resource was “A Chicken in Every Yard” which I picked up from Turning the Tide bookstore. I also bought “Backyard Chickens for Dummies” (it seriously exists). By the late winter I was as ready as I possibly could be to have chickens. I’d also researched a chicken supplier of heritage birds who was just south of Swift Current SK. The difference between heritage chickens and the others was that heritage, as the name implies, are long standing breeds that have been pure bred (like a cat or dog) to maintain certain characteristics of that breed that were present before the “modern” breed of chickens – those of which have been more scientifically bred to produce a greater number of eggs or rear more meat – often at the sacrifice of the overall health of the bird in the long run. Anyways we’d decided on three chickens to start with and elected to go with a variety pack: Buff Orpington, Black Australorp, and a Barred Plymouth Rock. April 12th was the day we drove to the Swift Current poultry and exotic bird show.

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They were a lot cuter than I expected. I dunno I always thought chickens were pretty ugly beasts, but these guys were downright handsome little devils. From right to left, we named them Hildie, Marge, and Ruth.

We had a lot of fun with these little guys introducing them to our neighbours, friends and family.  They were 8-week old “pullets” – basically teenagers. They don’t start laying eggs until they are fully mature at about 16-20 weeks old. So for 12-weeks these guys freeloaded off of us. Eating lots of feed and making us clean up after them every week.

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After all the preparatory work and reading I’d done I was really surprised at how easy they were to take care of. Certainly they required some basic knowledge and understanding (what to eat, how often to clean the coop, how to clean it, when to introduce them to other pets, etc etc), but overall they weren’t that much work. Basically we’d let them out of the insulated henhouse in the morning. If it was cool in the night then I would turn on the heat lamp I’d installed (I also installed a thermometer inside the coop that we could monitor from inside our house to make sure they didn’t get too cold). In the morning they’d trot down the ramp, eat some food, take a few craps, and drink some water. The rest of the day they’d scratch around in their coop and then at night they’d walk up the ramp and back into their henhouse. Pretty simple.

For the first few nights they weren’t sleeping on the roosts. I’d read that it was instinct for them to sleep on the planks of wood that I’d installed in the henhouse. But instead I’d find them sleeping on the nesting box, in the nesting box, or huddled in the corner. C’mon you dumb chickens! It’s supposed to be instinctual! So for the next few days, after dark, we’d open the henhouse and place them on the roost. Most mornings they were elsewhere, but after a week Ruth stayed on it all night, and by the next night all three perched there until morning. Since then we’d never had an issue. Great success!

We resisted introducing them to the dog for several weeks out of fear that she would kill them or more likely that the hens would peck out our French Bulldog’s eyeballs. Needless to say, Fiona, the dog, was highly curious of these weird creatures that had suddenly shown up in her backyard.

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However after about 6 weeks, Fiona didn’t seem to care about them anymore and the chickens equally seemed uninterested in her. Also, they were getting bigger and, although their coop was plenty big enough for them, they seemed a bit bored. Cooped up, you might say (ha!).We discussed it and thought, maybe we should try letting them out in the backyard and seeing how they do. We were prepared for the worst: feathers, blood, eyeballs, all of it.

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But none of that happened! In fact, it was positively uneventful. Boring you might say. I had prepared myself for blood and there was none. They just walked around, took a couple of craps, and when Fiona tried to sniff one they freaked out and ran back into their coop.

In late June we got our first egg courtesy of Ruth. We were so excited about it. But then had to laugh, why were we so excited that a chicken had laid an egg? Isn’t that their job? Isn’t that just what chickens normally do? Still it was pretty awesome.

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Also, the chickens were being regularly let into the yard in the morning when I got up and when we were in the backyard. Fiona was less than impressed.

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Around this time we were asked by Laura and Cory at the Better Good if we’d like to be apart of their Garden + Yard Tour this year as they had planned for it to go through our neighbourhood.

Hmm… we’d been trying to keep this super duper secret thus far, but at the same time we wanted people know what we were doing. I’d been reading books about urban farming and urban homesteading and certainly backyard chickens was a big thing that these movements talked about. We’d also already bought our land by this point, so we thought, what the heck, let’s do it.

By the way, Saskatoon, our city, is a funny place. We have many young, forward-thinking and progressive people doing a lot of very interesting things in a variety of disciplines, but for whatever reason, our city hall and council are very happy with the status quo (i.e. doing nothing progressive or forward thinking). It took 10 years for us to develop a city-wide recycling program for goodness sake.

As the time got closer to the garden tour, Cory called me and said that the StarPhoenix, the local newspaper, was very interested in the backyard chickens and wanted to do a story on it. They’d be coming on the tour and wanted to talk to us.

Ok, now we hadn’t planned for that. We were a bit nervous now. I was fine letting a hundred or so people in on our secret backyard chicken operation, but the whole city… yikes.

But as we talked with Cory and Laura, we realized that we were actually in a unique position, we had planned on listing our house this Fall (another post on that later) and moving the chicken coop out to our land at the end of month. Our good friends were kind enough to agree to add our hens to their existing flock, so really, we had nothing to lose. If we got in trouble it really wouldn’t be a big deal. So we thought, ok, bring on the press! Let’s confess!

The Garden Tour was August 17th and it was super fun. We had about 120 people through our backyard and the response was completely positive. Everyone was so interested in the chickens and our coop. We fielded innumerable questions about what our neighbours thought (they thought it was fun/cool), if we’d had any complaints (no), if they stink (no only if you don’t clean the coop), if they are loud (no they’re not roosters; they make a bit of squawking in morning when they wanted out and occasionally bok-bok-boking, but that’s about it), and many others. There were several people interested in starting their own flock in the city and a few others that also had chickens (co-conspirators!).

Also the StarPhoenix came through a took a bunch of notes and photos. After the tour, we waited for the article to be published and for any fall out.

Oh and I was going for surgery the next day.

The article was published in Monday’s paper. It was short and sweet and had a lovely description of our little setup. Hildie, the Barred Rock, was also featured in a photo (article is at the end of this post).

On Tuesday, as I lay on the couch moaning and bleeding out of my face while Darcie tended to my post-surgical wounds, the doorbell rang. “Um, this looks serious,” she said. A person in a fancy uniform was standing at our door. Darcie opened the door. Animal Control Services. Wow that was faster than we had anticipated. “I’m here about a report of chickens in your backyard. Are you aware of the bylaw?” “Yes, I am”, Darcie said. I was ready to be dragged off in handcuffs, crying and bleeding. Darcie told her, “They’re actually going to be moved out at the end of the week and the coop as well.” She also asked what the complaint was? “It’s regarding the newspaper article,” the official person lady said, “I’ll be back next week to make sure they’re gone.”

Just as Darcie sat back down and I breathed a sigh of relief that we hadn’t been thrown in shackles and strung up in the town square, the doorbell rang again. What the heck now?

It was the reporter from the StarPhoenix. “What was that all about?” She asked. Darcie explained to her that we’d been busted. “Well I’d like to interview you about the chickens and the bylaw and why you have them despite it. Can you do it now? I can have a photographer here right away.” Darcie tried to explain that I was on death’s doorstop, but I, like trooper I am, said to just do the interview.

For the next half hour Darcie talked to the reporter, took a short video, and had a bunch of photos snapped. The reporter told us it would likely be a front page article. Oh damn. (See attached article at the end of this post).

On Thursday the news broke. Sure enough, It was front and centre on page #1. Darcie smiling and holding Marge (the Buff Orpington) and the headline reading “Councillor says chickens can be deadly.” Frick. That really doesn’t sound like what we were going for. We don’t want to be the crazy evil chicken people. However as you read the article it quickly became clear that that statement was simply ludicrous. They had interviewed three city councillors, the first guy was very deadset against chickens. Reading his comments was like reading an article on The Onion. His statements were so preposterous that I was laughing out loud at several occasions. The second councillor was also misinformed quite badly, but at least he was open to a pilot project for chickens in the city. And the third, one of the only rational voices on the city council, Charlie Clark, commented that he actually lived next to a house that kept backyard chickens, was completely supportive about it and had many valid, well-informed and thoughtful ideas about backyard chickens.

The response to the article from the public was remarkably and overwhelmingly positive. I read through all of the Facebook comments that I could that were linked to the article through various sources or shared on other pages. I was surprised at the incredible majority (well over 95%) of people who were in favour and supportive of having chickens in the city. It was also very rewarding to hear the comments from our neighbours (who we had not previously talked to about chickens), who enjoyed the quiet clucking they heard in the morning and that it “made them love their neighbourhood even more” and others who said they’d “miss not hearing the clucking.” We were also very happy to read a number of comments from people who were on the tour that were inspired by our mini urban homestead.

Overall we have really enjoyed the process of having chickens in the city, although short-lived due to our move out to the country. It has been such a pleasure to have the hens in our backyard. It brings a great sense of satisfaction when you can learn about something, research it, make it into a reality and see other people be inspired and excited about it too.

-K

YARD TOUR SHOWCASES SUSTAINABILITY – The StarPhoenix – August 18, 2014

COUNCILLOR SAYS CHICKENS CAN BE DEADLY – The StarPhoenix – August 22, 2014

(Originally posted August 24, 2014)

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